The Blog

The Copts Will Fight

But they won’t win.

5:29 PM, Oct 12, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

For most of the last century, the community was politically quiescent, at least until 1977 when the Coptic Pope, Shenouda, opposed President Anwar Sadat’s plan to incorporate more aspects of sharia into the Egyptian constitution in order to placate his growing Islamist problem. Shortly before Sadat’s first trip to meet the recently elected Ronald Reagan, scores of Copts were massacred in Cairo in June 1981 by Islamists as well as local residents while the police did little to stop the slaughter (Copts claim 181 were killed while Egyptian authorities say the casualty figures are much lower). For the Egyptian leader, his visit to Washington was overshadowed by the large numbers of Copts demanding justice for their slain relatives. Fearing that Shenouda was getting too powerful, and accusing him of attempting to create an independent Christian state in Egypt, Sadat had him put under house arrest, and announced that the state no longer recognized Shenouda as pope. Even as most of Sadat’s other political adversaries were forgiven by the new Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in the wake of Sadat’s murder at the hands of Islamists, Shenouda was held in a monastery until January 1985.

For more than 15 years, Tadros explains, “the pope was quiet and there were no clashes with the government, even as there were several massacres of Copts that the Mubarak regime did little to prevent. But from the Copts’ perspective, it was wise to side with a government that was taking on the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri.” Even worse was Omar Abd el-Rahman—the so-called “Blind Sheikh” now being held in an American prison for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack—who published a fatwa declaring that it was licit to rob and kill Copts. The 1997 massacre at Luxor, where Islamists killed 62 people, 58 of them foreign tourists, effectively brought an end to the jihadist insurgency as the Mubarak regime showed the militants no mercy in the aftermath of an attack that brought the Egyptian economy to a standstill.

Tadros and Rezkalla explain that the Coptic community saw the post-insurgency period as an opportunity to promote their community’s interests. The years 2001-2010 were crucial in forging a new identity among the Copts. Aside from a demonstration in front of the headquarters of a tabloid that had published scurrilous rumors about the clergy, there were few public protests. But there was plenty of political action on church grounds and within the churches themselves, led by several young priests. They published a magazine distributed in churches, The Theban Legion—named after 6,000 Coptic legionnaires of the Roman army stationed in Thebes who were martyred in the third century for refusing to offer the emperor a sacrifice. The clergy also started a group for young activists called “Kimi.” Rezkalla writes the word out for me in the Coptic alphabet and says that it refers to the fertile mud brought forth by the Nile. “It’s how the pharaohs used to refer to Egypt,” says Tadros—“Kimi.”

In November 2010 the Copts first came into open conflict with the security forces when they protested against the local government in Giza for suspending building of a new church. “It was also the first time the Copts refused a direct order coming from the pope,” says Rezkalla. However, Tadros allows it might have been a clever political move on Shenouda’s part in order to increase his own leverage with the Mubarak regime. “He might have been saying, ‘you see how they ignore me, so you have to give me some concessions I can show them.'" These were not the fatalistic Copts of old. Instead, they carried crosses and shouted slogans—“Raise your head up high, you are a Copt.”

About the January 25 uprising that eventually toppled Mubarak, the Coptic community was wary, understanding that for all Mubarak’s faults he had put down an Islamist insurgency in the '80s and '90s that specifically targeted Copts. Nonetheless, explains Tadros, many of the younger Copts were hopeful after Mubarak stepped down, at least until they realized that everyone’s demands were being met—especially those of the Islamists, and the revolutionaries—except the Copts. Indeed, no one was even held responsible for vicious attacks on the community, like the 2011 New Year’s Eve burning of a church in Alexandria.

So where do the Copts go from here? Their status and that of other regional Christian communities suggests that the Muslim fundamentalists had it right—first the Saturday people will go and then the Sunday people. The difference is that the Jews have their own state—along with an army, a nuclear weapon and a thriving economy based on the IT sector. There is no Christian refuge in the Middle East, not even Lebanon where the Maronites have seen their power evaporate so quickly that the part of the community which follows Michel Aoun seems not understand that his alliance with Hezbollah is in reality a suicide pact.

That recognition, among other reasons, is why the Copts will never come to a similar accommodation with Egypt’s Islamist groups. Nor on the other hand can they expect much success in their continued efforts to defend themselves. They have neither the numbers to protect themselves against the 90 percent Muslim majority, nor the geography. There are no mountains for the Copts to hide among, like the Kurds, Druze, Maronites, and Alawites, nor are there sufficiently large enough concentrations of Copts to make the sort of lasting self-defense that might turn into self-determination plausible. To be sure, as we saw on Sunday, the Copts will fight, but as we also witnessed, they won’t win.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers